Applying to Jobs for Liberal Arts Graduates
from an average white dude that works in tech
So every year around this time, I get a bunch of emails from seniors at my alma mater, Hamilton, asking advice about getting jobs. Rather than say the same thing over and over, I figured I would write down the basics here, and we can take it from there with any further thoughts or questions.
You Have No Skills
Unless you are very much an outlier and had some serious side hustle, in which case you probably don’t need my advice, you probably do not have any industry-specific skills. That is, you have a major in some topic, but are by no means ready to jump right into a job and start being productive right away. This is part of what you sign up for with a liberal arts school, so you probably knew this going on. But it’s important to acknowledge, because a lot of companies want to hire, and have the person they hired go to productivity pretty much right away, which is why they are hiring in the first place.
Do not try to pretend that you have industry-specific skills or experience, or lie about your skills and experience to satisfy this requirement. It might get you a job offer, but they will find out pretty quickly, and you will be fired, which is really bad. You do not want to start this way. Be completely honest about the fact that you went to a liberal arts school, and while you have a very wide array of knowledge and experience in a variety of disciplines, you are not the kind of person they will hire and will immediately slot in and start producing with specialized skills.
Sell Companies on Your Potential
The main strength of liberal arts schools is precisely what you may have perceived as a drawback from the above section — that you come out with a wide array of knowledge and experience in critical thinking, writing, and problem solving, rather than one industry-specific specialized skill. Your strength is in your growth potential.
For a company, every employee is an investment. A specialty-trained employee is a fairly safe investment — low risk, low reward. The company knows they will produce with their specific skill, and that’s really all they can reliably count on them for. A liberal arts trained employee is a little higher on the risk reward scale. It takes a bit more initial investment to get them trained up, but they have much better chances of becoming future leaders at the company, and the buy-in is much cheaper since they come relatively unskilled.
Some companies need to immediately fill a need, and require a safe investment that can start producing fast. These are not companies you will get a job at. Other companies are always on the lookout for good investments, or happen to be hiring for a position that they don’t immediately need to fill in order to keep a project afloat, but rather are always looking for quality talent. This is the type of company you can get a job at, provided you are able to sell them on the fact that you have good potential and would be a great investment for them.
For me, seeing a genuine excitement for whatever type of work you are applying for, good, clear, and casual communication, thorough research on me, the company, and the position, and a track record of self-directed learning is a for sure indication that I’m looking at a great investment.
Drop Your Ego
Remember, you have no skills that anyone wants right now. So you are not going to land yourself in a high level, high paying position straight off the bat. You are a special snowflake and all that, but it will take a while before you bloom and your special-ness really starts to shine. In the beginning you will need to have a lot of humility, and not be afraid to start at rock bottom.
This means even starting with an internship or as a contractor is a good move. It gives the company a chance to see how you learn and grow without committing too hard or investing too much money. It’s a chance for you to further prove that you are a good investment.
Even if there aren’t internships or contractor positions listed, it’s always worth trying to reach out to a company and talk about this. These positions can always be made, and if you show great potential, it’s a no brainer for any company to give you a chance.
Don’t Spray & Pray
Many students are convinced that the way you apply for jobs is sending formal emails and your resume to a bunch of companies, and then one decides to bring you in and interview you and offer a position. This is a completely twisted view of the process. Remember how you have no skills? There are a ton of other people applying to that same job position with resumes that are not full of student charity organizations and fluffy internships, and say “I trained for 4 years for exactly this job.” You really think your questionable liberal arts resume is going to beat out ones like this?
If you want to get your foot in the door, you need to stand out. This means following employees/the company on social media. Reaching out to individual employees and asking to speak with them. Getting any sort of intros or connections you can through someone who knows you and works at the company, or knows you and knows someone who works there. Making a customized application that is unique to the company you are applying to and shows the huge amount of research you have done on them, and drive you have to work there. A crazy video. A website. A physical piece of art you mail to them. Get creative.
Ideally, you will take alternate routes to applying, rather than emailing a resume to HR. Once your resume hits HR’s desk, it will have at least a couple notes attached, and you will be known as a familiar face. You cannot afford to mass apply with your skill-less resume, you need to stand out. This usually means applying to fewer companies, but putting more effort into the applications.
Treat it Like Dating
Jobs are a lot like dating (I’m serious), so don’t mess around with the way you put effort into applications, or the way you ultimately choose. Choose companies very carefully, put in a lot of effort, and be honest and true to yourself, the same way you would treat finding a life partner.
Any type of exaggeration will come back to bite you. Laziness will yield absolutely no results, then you will be a jobless loser. Not putting effort into choosing the right companies will land you in a garbage job that you hate. This is incredibly important, so don’t treat it as an afterthought and assume things will just come together for you.
Along that same vein, do not be discouraged if a company doesn’t like you, or if they don’t even reply. A lot of companies totally suck, and only have eyes on here and now, so they will discard applicants that don’t solve their immediate needs (no skills, sorry). But good companies value investments in their future, and will look carefully at applicants that perhaps don’t immediately start churning out value, but can be bought cheap and invested in to produce amazing value in the future. If a company isn’t interested in you, it is probably because this is not the type of company you want to work at anyway.
Keep Relationships Alive
Once you get a job, you might be tempted to close out all aspects of your job search — mission accomplished, right? Not exactly. The time you spent researching companies and the care you put into applications should not be put to waste. Keep the relationships with other companies alive. Even if it wasn’t the right time for them to hire you now, it might be in the future, and you could easily land yourself in a job you like more. Speaking from experience, I am much more likely to hire someone that my company has had a relationship with for a while than a brand new person. Don’t be afraid to place yourself as a benchwarmer for companies you love — when the time is right for you to come in, it will be an easy choice for them.
That’s it! That was a lot of text, and if you got through all of this and still have any questions, please feel free to email me and we can chat more. But don’t email me with any of this formal “Mr. Escalante” bullshit, I am the least formal person you will ever meet, and I have the maturity level of a 5 year old.